The April 20 shootings at Columbine High School have touched off a wave of bomb scares and threats of violence against schools that experts say is unprecedented in its intensity and duration.
In the four weeks after the Colorado tragedy, more than 350 students were arrested on charges related to threats against schools, school officials, or their classmates, an Education Week analysis shows. And in hundreds of other cases, schools were shut down or evacuated and students sent home.
Education and law-enforcement officials said last week that the widespread disruption of schooling was far more severe than anything in recent memory and showed few signs of slowing in the waning weeks of the school year. The continuing threats have strained authorities’ resources and forced at least one district to end the year early.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman in Washington.
While the vast majority of incidents turn out to be hoaxes, a substantial number are not, as illustrated by the shooting of six students--none of them fatally injured--in a suburban Atlanta high school late last week and the arrests this month of four Michigan students on charges they hatched a detailed plot against their school.
In the aftermath of the Jefferson County, Colo., rampage by two students that left 15 people dead, many officials say they cannot afford to ignore even the most unlikely threats to the safety of students and school personnel. (“A Colo. Community Looks for Answers After Deadly Attack,” April 28, 1999.)
But there are also fears that, in some cases, officials are overreacting.
“Most schools are taking this seriously and shutting schools down,” said Marty Earley, a bomb technician and detective with the Bloomington, Minn., police. “But they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
Mixture of Forces at Work
To gauge the severity of the fallout in the four weeks after the Columbine shootings, Education Week examined thousands of newspaper articles and wire service reports. Of the more than 350 arrests, at least 30 incidents involved an actual bomb or weapon.
There are few reliable sources of data on school-related violence, and an analysis of media accounts almost certainly understates the actual number of incidents nationwide.
Law-enforcement and education officials interviewed last week attributed the phenomenon to a complex mix of forces at work since the Jefferson County shootings: intensive media coverage of the tragedy; a particular fascination with the Columbine High School incident, which has struck a dark chord with some students; hair-trigger responses by police and school administrators to incidents that might otherwise go unnoticed; and the usual spate of pranks and threats that occurs in schools each spring.
“Every once in a while, you see a watershed event, and this is it,” said Bruce Hunter, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.
In Bloomington, the bomb squad hadn’t been called to a school for a bomb threat all year until late last month. Mr. Early, the bomb technician, said last week that since April 20, “we are averaging three calls a day to schools that are still getting threats.”
In the 9,400-student Allen, Texas, district near Dallas, officials suspended regular classes a week before the scheduled end of the school year after 11 bomb threats in 10 days and eight evacuations at four schools.
“Student and teachers were wondering, ‘Is it going to happen today?’ ” said Tim Carroll, the district spokesman. “Children were honestly frightened. They were writing about bomb topics in their journals.”
Educators are working with students to complete assignments and final exams, said Karleen Noake, the principal of the district’s Ford Middle School. “We are doing everything we can to make sure their grades don’t suffer.”
During the 1997-98 school year, several widely publicized shootings at schools provoked a similar, though much smaller, rash of “copycat” incidents that drew tough responses from school and police officials. (“Officials Take No Chances After Killings,” June 3, 1998.)
But none of the experts and educators interviewed last week said they could recall a month in which so many students were arrested for threatening violence against schools. Mr. Hunter of the AASA said the only comparable upheaval in public schooling happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, when student protests hit many campuses.
“This is much more sinister, though,” Mr. Hunter said. “That was about challenging the values of another generation. This is focused on harming other people.”
Among the most serious incidents:
- In Rockdale County, Ga., a 15-year-old sophomore was arrested last Thursday--exactly one month after the Columbine shootings--after six students were shot in a common area at Heritage High School, near Conyers. The students’ injuries were not considered life-threatening, authorities said.
- In Port Huron, Mich., four students, one as young as 12, were arraigned May 14 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder after they allegedly devised a plan for a massacre at their middle school.
- In the central Texas town of Wimberley, four 8th graders were charged April 23 after they were overheard discussing a plan to kill students and teachers. Gunpowder and explosive devices were later found in a search of the boys’ homes, authorities said.
- On April 29, a 13-year-old boy who was armed with a loaded pistol and an apparent list of 30 intended victims was arrested at a Bakersfield, Calif., middle school.
Along with such clearly serious incidents, scores of cases have been reported in which students were arrested for making vague or ambiguous threats, prompting concerns that the crackdowns are violating students’ rights. In some cases, arrests have stemmed from threats made during arguments between students or from ominous-sounding warnings posted on the Internet.
In Kansas City, Mo., the office of the American Civil Liberties Union has been swamped with complaints from parents, said Eddie Lorenzo, the legal director of the ACLU for Kansas and western Missouri.
“School administrators need to take a deep breath,” he said. “In the aftermath of the tragedy, schools are being overly cautious, and they are punishing students who don’t deserve to be punished--students that have never been in trouble before.”
In Jacksonville, Fla., a 12-year-old middle school student was arrested April 21 for talking to her friends at lunch about bringing a bomb and guns to school. The charges were later dropped.
Yet many educators say they cannot take a chance that their schools could become the next Columbine High.
“This is a terroristic activity that needs to be taken seriously,” said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., which monitors and reports on school violence.
In the nation’s capital, schools have shut down several times in recent weeks, prompting complaints from some parents and praise from others. “This certainly is disruptive,” said Denise Tann, a spokeswoman for the District of Columbia schools. “Some people are fearful,” she said, “but they’re also thinking, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
The costs of the phenomenon are high, both financially and educationally.
In Medford, Ore., about 40 percent of the district’s 12,000 students were absent one day last week after rumors that students planned to bring guns to school were posted on the Internet.
“We are just trying to get back to normal around here,” said Dan Zaklan, a spokesman for the district. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
For parents, the threats and rumors are costly in emotional terms and in disrupted work and school schedules.
“Normally you think, ‘Do they have bus fare or pencil?’ ” said Saundra Williams, whose 15-year-old son, Corey, attends Deal Junior High School in Washington. “You don’t think about telling your child about how best to get out of the cafeteria safely.”
Unlike some parents who have kept their children home because of fears of violence, Ms. Williams said she has sent Corey to school because she doesn’t want his education hijacked.
But, she said, “I told my son that you have to make sure someone watches your back.”
Librarian Kathryn Dorko contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 1999 edition of Education Week as Arrests Top350 in Threats, Bomb Scares